Welcome to Wal-Mart: For weary travelers, Maine parking lots make good campgrounds

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BRUNSWICK — During the day, the parking lot of the Wal-Mart on Bath Road in Brunswick buzzes with shoppers.

But when the sun sets over the asphalt, one patch on the northern edge turns into a campground.

At just after 5 p.m. Sept. 29, two drivers pulled their campers side-by-side into this spot. They’d just driven down the coast from New Brunswick, and planned to stay overnight at the Brunswick Wal-Mart.

“I usually just call ahead and ask,” said Noelle Wolter, of Ruther Glen, Virginia, as her husband Bob straightened out the trailer.

Most Wal-Mart stores offer free overnight parking for campers. The reason, according to the company’s website, is because “Wal-Mart values RV travellers and considers them among our best customers.”

All three Wal-Marts in The Forecaster coverage area − Scarborough, Falmouth, and Brunswick − allow free overnight parking for trailers and campers. The Falmouth store, however, limits stays to one night at the request of its landlord, according to the store manager.

Wolter estimated she and her husband have stayed in anywhere from 20 to 30 Wal-Mart stores across the country in their travels.

“It’s convenient,” she said. “We can buy clothing, groceries, anything.” That afternoon, they got a tire alignment and oil change.

This is the Wolter’s fourth road trip. Their traveling companions are Bob Telfer, and his wife Beth.

“Bob (Wolter) and I have known each other since we were 2 years old,” Bob Telfer said.

They grew up together in Greece, New York, a town outside of Rochester. There’s even a third Bob, who usually vacations with the Wolters and Telfers, but he was in North Carolina because his daughter had just had a baby.

Noelle Wolter also grew up in the Rochester area, and Beth Telfer is from Rome, New York.

“(Bob and Noelle) got married the day before we did, 47 years ago,” Bob Telfer said. “We’ve just sort of been hanging out together for years.”

The Telfers were the original camper travelers, but they sold their first trailer some years back.

“But then Bob (Wolter) retired … and said, ‘Let’s go cross country,'” Bob Telfer said. “So we bought another.”

This trip took the couples from their homes in Virginia and Fairport, New York, through New England, across the Canadian border, and then through the maritimes to Prince Edward Island.

They’d jumped the Abegweit Passage on a ferry, and then drove the eight-mile expanse of the Confederation Bridge back across, single file down the two-lane roadway.

The previous night, they’d parked their campers in a near-empty campground on the water and watched the sunset.

They said they like to stay in Wal-Marts to resupply and use the bathrooms. Most Wal-Marts are open 24 hours, they noted, although the Brunswick store is only open until midnight.

“They all kind of look like this,” Noelle said, pointing to the sea of concrete and chain restaurants in the background.

But sometimes convenience is king.

On the way up, they stayed two nights in the parking lot of the Scarborough Wal-Mart because the Wolter’s spaniel, Duncan, hurt his back jumping out of the truck.

They took him to the Maine Veterinary Medical Center on Technology Way in Scarborough for treatment. Then they had lobster at The Lobster Shack at Two Lights in Cape Elizabeth.

Duncan is doing better now, but the Wolters still need to carry him up and down the steps of their camper while their other dog, Marley, a big labradoodle, takes them in a single bound.

The parking lot can also be a gathering place. The Wolters said they have a niece who lives in Portland and drove out to the Scarborough Wal-Mart to visit them.

When the weather is good, Noelle Wolter said, they set up camp chairs and a little table on the concrete between their trailers and have cheese and crackers with wine or beer.

Bob Telfer said they always feel safe sleeping in the parking lots, since there’s pretty good lighting all around.

“Too much lighting,” Beth said. “Sometimes I wake up in the middle of the night and don’t know what time it is.”

They once stayed in a Wal-Mart in California, where they shared the parking lot with a large group of homeless people and their dogs. They didn’t feel unsafe, they said, but their neighbors were a little “rowdy.”

On that trip, one of the Bobs missed a sign and led both campers up a steep, winding road to an overlook of the Golden Gate Bridge. They didn’t have much time to take in the view, though; a park ranger had to come and direct traffic so they could turn around.

Then they took another wrong turn, and ended up driving through the middle of downtown San Francisco.

Brunswick was likely going to be the second-to-last night of their road trip. They had plans to stop in Freeport the next day, Sept.30, and then spend a night at a Wal-Mart in either New Hampshire or Vermont before parting ways.

After letting their four dogs out to stretch, the Wolters and Telfers shepherded the canines back into the campers so they could go to dinner at the nearby Pizza Hut.

With all the driving and maintenance involved on these long journeys, “every time we take a trip, we (wonder), should we sell the camper?,” Bob Telfer said.

But because the third Bob missed this trip, “he’ll want to repeat,” Telfer added.

So next fall, they’ll all be back on the road again.

After all, there are still a lot of Wal-Marts they haven’t visited.

Walter Wuthmann can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or wwuthmann@theforecaster.net. Follow Walter on Twitter: @wwuthmann.

Beth Telfer, left, Bob Wolter, Bob Telfer, and Noelle Wolter set up camp at the Wal-Mart in Brunswick on Sept. 29 with their dogs Kai, Marley, Duncan, and Dylan.

Brunswick/Harpswell reporter for The Forecaster. Bowdoin College grad, San Francisco Bay Area native. Follow for municipal, school, community, and environmental news from the Midcoast.